Michael Hurd

Composer, conductor and writer who championed the music of Ivor Gurney and Rutland Boughton


Michael John Hurd, composer and writer: born Gloucester 19 December 1928; died Petersfield, Hampshire 8 August 2006.

The composer, choral conductor and writer Michael Hurd's first music to appear in print was two groups of unison settings of Walter de la Mare, Araby and Please to Remember and Sailor's Song. The Silver Penny and Tillie in 1963 (collected with others as Sea and Shore Songs in 1970). This started his long-standing association with Novello & Co, who not only published almost all his music, but also his books, and whose history, Vincent Novello & Company, he wrote in 1981. When, in 1983, Novello issued a brochure listing Hurd's works published by them, it ran to 12 pages.

His many commissions came from local societies such as the Havant Symphony Orchestra and Havant and District Schools Music Festival, Southern Orchestral Concerts Society, the Farnham Festival, the Petersfield Music Festival, the Stroud Festival and the Hampshire Federation of Women's Institutes. Out of these, Hurd developed an accessible line in popular cantatas for children's groups including Jonah-man Jazz (1966), Swingin' Samson (1972), Hip Hip Horatio (1974), Rooster Rag (1975) and Captain Coram's Kids (1988), which for perhaps 20 years were widely performed.

In the more serious of these Hurd uses a narrator, most dramatically, perhaps, in Pilgrim (1978), his response to a commission from Bedfordshire County Council to celebrate the tercentenary of the publication of Pilgrim's Progress. Also notable among these was his "music-hall guide to Victorian living", Mrs Beeton's Book (1982), using words from the celebrated cookery book to amusing effect.

A reminder came of the eloquence of his many serious vocal works, both choral and for solo voice and orchestra, when his orchestral song cycle Shore Leave, five enchanting settings of poems by Charles Causley, was revived by the baritone Roderick Williams during the 1998 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. This had first appeared as a work for tenor and string orchestra in 1963 when it was sung by Wilfred Brown at Haslemere in Surrey. These works were crowned by the four-movement choral symphony Shepherd's Calendar, after John Clare, for baritone, chorus and orchestra, first heard in 1975.

Michael Hurd was born in Gloucester in 1928, the son of a cabinet-maker and upholsterer. He attended the Crypt Grammar School in Gloucester, and while still at school was encouraged in his musical interests by the Gloucester composer Alexander Brent-Smith. I can remember him fondly recalling the importance of Cheltenham Public Library in his musical education.

Called up for National Service, Hurd found himself in the Army Intelligence Corps where a posting to Vienna enabled him to indulge a growing passion for opera. He went up to Pembroke College, Oxford in 1950, to read music under Sir Thomas Armstrong and Bernard Rose, and was President of the Oxford University Music Society. Subsequently he was Professor of Theory at the Royal Marines School of Music at Deal from 1953-59. For many years he was a composition pupil of the composer Lennox Berkeley.

The death of his parents gave him a small inheritance with which he was able to buy (for only a few hundred pounds) the small cottage in West Liss, Hampshire, where he lived for the rest of his life. Going freelance, he developed a portfolio of musical activities which gave him a living and enabled him to compose. Locally these included conducting the Alton and Petersfield Choral Societies, together with Gilbert and Sullivan operettas for his local operatic society. One of his singers remembers him as "highly thought of, dynamic, creative". He lectured widely, adjudicated, appeared regularly on BBC Radio 3, usually talking about British music (Rutland Boughton, Ivor Gurney, Gerald Finzi) and fulfilled many commissions, notably writing music for local choral societies, schools and orchestras.

When only 19 he had sought out the composer Rutland Boughton for advice on his own music, but soon found himself producing the first book-length account of Boughton's life and music which became his first significant publication in 1962, much later expanded as Rutland Boughton and the Glastonbury Festivals for the Clarendon Press in 1993.

A longstanding friend of Hurd was the writer David Hughes and his wife the actress Mai Zetterling at whose house he had completed his book on Boughton. They introduced him to writing film music, for Flickorna (1968) and Scrubbers (1982). He wrote the music for a son et lumiére production at Kenilworth Castle in 1962 and incidental music for Edward II at Berkeley Castle and Comus at Highnam Court.

He had produced two operas for children, Little Billy, "a nautical opera" first performed at Brightlands School, Newnham-on-Severn in 1964 and Mr Punch, an "operatic entertainment for young people" commissioned by the Stiftelsen Institut für Rikskonserter, Stockholm, and first seen at Gothenburg in 1970. This operatic talent found a larger canvas when, working with Hughes, he produced the dark one-act chamber opera The Widow of Ephesus for the 1971 Stroud Festival. Later came two more operas, The Aspern Papers (1995) and The Night of the Wedding (1998).

While Hurd's musical activities were largely focused on the UK and especially the South and West, he certainly travelled abroad, usually as choral conductor or adjudicator, visiting Rhodesia early on and Madras in 1985 to give choral workshops. He had a warm reception in Australia, writing to me how they "seemed to like" his music after his fourth visit in 1991. There, in 1995, he enjoyed the only production so far of The Aspern Papers. Indeed, all his operas were given there and he was beginning to wonder whether if he were younger he would prefer living in Melbourne.

Hurd's books included many for children, including Young Person's Guide to Concerts (1962), Young Person's Guide to Opera (1963), Young Person's Guide to English Music (1965) and an extensive revision to The Oxford Junior Companion to Music. He became Novello's editor for their series of short biographies, and contributed the volumes on Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams and Elgar to Faber's "The Great Composers" series.

As well as Boughton, the other composer Hurd was notably associated with was the Gloucestershire-born Gurney, on whom he wrote the first full-length study, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (1978). Here he wrote from personal experience, not only of his boyhood's Gloucestershire, but of the experience of being a composer. In his book The Composer (1968), Hurd was undoubtedly writing autobiographically when he wrote "From the moment the composer is born, his mind begins to hoard away musical experiences."

Hurd was long associated with preparing for performance the music of the two composers he notably championed, Gurney and Boughton, and with a local operatic group, Opera 70, he actually conducted a stage production of Boughton's opera The Lily Maid at Chichester in 1985. Early in his career the Farnham Festival performance of his Canticles of the Virgin Mary had appeared on LP and with the Rutland Boughton Music Trust he was able to arrange the promotion of commercial recordings of Boughton's operas and orchestral works. And yet he never seemed able to pull together the organisation necessary to arrange the recordings of his own music which would have given it a higher profile than it at present enjoys.

Michael Hurd was a solitary and private man, albeit a charming and humorous one. Although I was acquainted with him for more than 30 years, I never had any hint of his family or any personal relationships.

Lewis Foreman

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